Interview with AYCO Board Chair Dr. Jen Agans

By Emily Fulton

Dr. Jen Agans is AYCO’s dedicated Board Chair.  She is a passionate circus educator and circademic.  She started her journey with AYCO as a youth in the early 2000s, and her involvement with AYCO and ACE grew over the years.  When not working with AYCO, Jen is an assistant professor and researcher for Penn State.  You can find out more about Jen and contact her at https://hhd.psu.edu/contact/jennifer-agans.  Recently, I had the honor of meeting with her over Zoom to hear her circus story.  I hope you enjoy reading our interview as much as I enjoyed chatting with her!

How did you get your start in circus?

I went to the Pine Hill Waldorf School, and when I was in Second Grade, the Seventh and Eighth Grade teachers brought in this cool lady who lived in the community to put on a circus with their kids. I remember watching that circus and being like, “that is the coolest thing, I want to do that.” Luckily for me, the school agreed that it was a cool thing and brought Jackie Davis on as a part-time and then eventually full-time Movement Teacher for the First through Eighth Grades. I got to have classes with Jackie, and I did a summer camp with her. I think Fourth Grade was my first time actually getting to try circus, and then by the time I was in Fifth Grade, we had circus classes, so I had juggling homework, which I did not like at the time. I was not very good at it, but thanks to Jackie’s homework and the requirement that I keep trying even though I didn’t want to, I became a juggler. That was my main circus skill, juggling. So it’s kind of fun that the thing that I did not like at the beginning ended up being the thing that I liked the most.

What is your favorite circus discipline or trick?

I don’t like just juggling by myself, I really like juggling with other people. My favorite thing is 2 or 3 or 4 person club passing. I really like the challenge of trying to work together as a group to make the patterns work and trying to link patterns together. All club passers have their own repertoire of tricks that they know, so when you get a group of three or four club passers together, pretty much everybody will have a trick that somebody else doesn’t know. They can teach the group. So it’s a really cool thing to do with other people and a cool way to hang out with people.

What is the most unique experience you’ve had through circus?

I think an obvious answer to that question would be when I toured with Circus Smirkus in 2004. Getting to travel around New England and performing in a big top tent is something that if you don’t do circus, you’re not going to do. And even a lot of people who do circus don’t get the chance to tour. So that was a really fun thing to have done. I think because I haven’t followed a circus career, my summer with Smirkus was the most performing I’ve ever done. Instead, I followed more of a circus education track. After Smirkus, I spent the next 10 summers coaching at, and then eventually directing, the Silver Lining Circus Camp, but I’ve spent a lot less time doing circus than many other people in the AYCO community. 

In the 10 years I spent my summers doing circus, I was also going to college and then graduate school. Now I work at a university, and there’s no circus within a couple of hours of where I live. Given that sort of non-circus lifestyle, circus has been a conversation starter. I always have an answer when someone asks for something surprising about me; “Oh, I juggle.” It’s a cool way to find out who the cool people are when you come into a new community. If I say “I juggle” and somebody goes, “weirdo” then I know who I don’t want to hang out with! It’s not a specific unique experience, but I think circus has given me something unique that I can carry into non-circus spaces. 

What’s your role at AYCO now? 

My current role is Chair of the Board, which means I lead meetings, I get to be a figurehead at events, and stuff like that. I’ve been on the Board for a few years, and prior to serving as the Chair, I served as the Secretary. There are all sorts of roles within a nonprofit organization so it’s interesting to serve in different capacities. 

Why did you decide and what inspired you to join AYCO’s Board?

I have been to every AYCO Festival except for 2007, which was the year that I was first over 18, and AYCO at that time didn’t have any role for circus kids who grew up. So I thought I was too old for AYCO, which was sad. For the following event in 2009, they created the work-study program, which is for people ages 18 to 26 who love circus and want to be part of the event. It’s great for transitioning into a leadership role; you’re not taking all the workshops, you’re helping to produce the event. I got to do that in 2009, and I came back to AYCO very excited. I started going to the educators’ conferences, which are held on the off years from the youth festivals. I guess my involvement in AYCO sort of evolved as I developed my career. 

When I was a youth circus performer I was going to the youth festivals, but starting in 2009 I was beginning to see myself as a circus educator. That corresponded with me going to college, getting a degree in psychology and education, and then going to graduate school and getting my Ph.D. in human development. In my academic work, I study adolescent involvement in extracurricular activities and why it’s good for kids to do stuff like circus. So I actually started to get more involved with AYCO as I got less involved in directly working with kids, because I was starting to become a circus researcher or a Circademic (using Jackie Davis’ term combining “circus” and “academic”). As I became a Circademic, I became useful to the circus community in a different way. In the academic world, it’s cool and weird and random that I juggle, but in the circus world, it’s kind of cool and weird and random that I do research. So I started to get a lot more involved in AYCO through the ACE side. I was helping circus educators to conduct research on their programs, and helping them demonstrate that their programs are effective because people who give money to programs like to get evidence that they are working.

I think through that involvement, I started to take more of a leadership role as somebody who people would turn to, to answer questions about research. Around that time, the then Chair of the Board, Jesse Alford, sent me an email. He had been the leader of the work-study people when I was a work-study person, so we had known each other a while. He reached out and asked how I felt about possibly being on the board. It just felt like a logical next step, since I was already serving on a committee, and I was honored to be asked. I felt completely unworthy. I had never served on a board before and I was in my 20s. I was like, “what do I know?” Luckily, they convinced me that I should join the board anyway and I’ve learned a lot along the way. 

One of my messages to folks out in the community is that if you love youth circus or you love circus education, you could be a good fit for the board. You don’t have to be somebody who’s been a member of AYCO for a long time. You don’t have to run your own organization. I don’t even work for a circus organization, and I haven’t for over a decade. Being on the board is a way to serve the circus education industry, and I want to see that industry thrive. So I do that by being on the board.

What is your favorite circus performance that you have ever seen?

My most recent favorite circus performance that I’ve seen is Humans by Circa. They came here to State College, Pennsylvania, and performed a couple of years ago, which I thought was very cool, because we don’t really have any circus here. Our Performing Arts Center is run by somebody who thinks circus is cool, so she brings in a circus to perform there at least once a year. 

I really liked Humans because it felt very different from a lot of other circus shows I had seen. Contemporary circus is supposed to feel different. There were just so many little details that were cool. There was very little on the stage, and they were doing amazing tumbling and acrobatics. They did a lot of interesting things with the sound, like moments of silence where you couldn’t even hear their feet hit the floor. It felt very, very different from many of the circuses that I’ve seen before. That would be the most recent one. 

I think maybe my other favorite circus performance that I’ve seen recently was the UniverSoul Circus, which I saw at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 2017. That was just like the epitome of a fun show. Every act was riveting and energizing, and super cool. Anybody who has a chance to see UniverSoul should see it.

Those two shows are almost on complete opposite ends of the spectrum. So I also really like that circus has so much variety inside of it. 

What is something in circus that you’ve always wanted to try, but haven’t gotten the chance to do yet?

Through going to AYCO festivals, I’ve gotten to try a lot of the things I wanted to try. I’ve gotten to try Flying Trapeze, I’ve gotten to try German Wheel, and I’ve gotten to walk on a super high wire. Those were all former answers to that question.

I think my current answer to that question is that, being far from circus practice, both with COVID and with living in Central Pennsylvania, I just miss doing circus. I just want to do it!  I like that feeling of shared accomplishment and shared struggle. You know, just being able to play in the circus space is something that I miss. Some people thrive on practicing alone, but I like the social parts. If I’m lucky, some circus youth will come to Penn State for college and start a circus club here. 

To learn about all of AYCO’s board members, click here!

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